Sunday, November 30, 2008

Someone in Canada notices the "Vinyl Comeback"

Spinning heads Vinyl is taking another turn on the table

I have no vinyl in my history to wax nostalgic over. My earliest memory is pushing the buttons on the family eight-track to get "Jumping Jack Flash" again. Jump the groove to the next music memory and I'm slotting Michael Jackson's "Thriller" into my gettoblaster.

But about a month ago, a friend asked if we could house her record collection during her indefinite stay in Mexico. Sure.

Two truck loads later, we had three turn tables, a stack of speakers and several hundred milk crated records in our living room. Obviously stuff had to be moved around to accommodate this collection, but man what a gift ... I mean loan. It's like inheriting all the books you want to read but probably wouldn't remember to search for in the library.

Listening to records is so different than hearing a mix of MP3 tracks off the computer. It's a fuller sound. A sound that crackles. Suddenly the room becomes warmer and you hear parts of Beatles songs you never had before. Flipping through the stacks, searching for records to play takes almost as much time, as actually listening to them. But that's OK because you want to listen -- not background music listen -- to the whole thing.

In this age of coveted iPods, free downloads and white ear buds, vinyl seems so anachronistic. Most predicted its death when the compact disc came on the scene in 1982.

But just like news of radio's demise when television came out, vinyl never really died. It has been kept alive during the lows of the 1980s by DJs, collectors, and hardcore punks.

And now it's making kind of a comeback. According to a New York Times article, the industry dipped down to a low 900,000 sales in 2006, but then sales then shot up about 37 per cent in 2007, to nearly 1.3 million. Three years ago, Warner Bros. Records opened an online vinyl store. At first, any release that sold 3,000 copies was considered a success, but then the 2007 Wilco album, "Sky Blue Sky," shot over 14,000 copies.

So who is buying these records?

Ghost World, a pop-culture movie that came out 2001, offers some clues. In it, teenager Thora Birch, wearing clunky glasses and 1940s dresses, connects with hard-core collector Steve Buscemi over vinyl. Birch's character, who abhors fakeness, is drawn to the realness of the music and the medium.

It's not the geeky old guy, but rather the retro girl fueling sales. And Sudbury is on the cutting edge of this trend. About six months ago, Cosmic Dave's Vinyl Emporium opened at 525 Kathleen St. It is one of the only stores in the country devoted solely to selling new vinyl records.

"I've sold over 500 records since June, which is good," said owner Mark Browning. "It's not like I'm getting rich doing it. It's a labour of love. At the same time, it's impressive ... That's people building collections."

The majority of his clients are in their teens to the early 30s. Some of the younger ones don't yet have a turntable, but they're buying anyway.

"I think most of them didn't grow up listening to records. It's funny, cause when I see someone older who's coming in I know they're coming in to get rid of their record collection."

High Fidelity is another record movie, in this case about a dusty, cluttered used vinyl store, where customers are mocked for their lack of knowledge. Cosmic Dave's is nothing like that. Each record is presented like a painting on the wall of its open concept space. Browning isn't interested in impressing collectors looking for vintage, but rather he's into turning people on to new music.

"The idea is reduce the choice, give more information about each choice and make each one special and come in and discover new music," he said. "There's so much good new music being made."

The concept for the store came to him when he was living in Vancouver, where he started building up a record collection from second-hand finds. Soon enough, however, listening only to music recorded before 1982 got stale.

"We had 25 years of CDs. Then we see general music industry business deteriorate," Browning said. "Suddenly records are coming back. And it's almost as if there is something magical about a record. It's not about whether records sound better than CDs or not, but there's something about buying a record."

The sound is different -- CDs are mastered to sound like the music is in front of you, while records have more of a surround feeling. Browning calls them more organic too. You know your record will die and you will kill it by playing it, he said.

"You don't feel cool walking down the street with a CD in your hand, but you do feel cool with a record. I think whatever it is that is missing (in CDs), is what killed the music industry ... There is something more personal about listening to a record."

The new vinyl releases come with codes, allowing the owner to download the album online, giving them the best of both worlds.

It costs more for bands to press vinyl records. Making a CD can start around $1,500, while a small run of records (about 1,000) begins at about $4,000, said Browning. The process of mastering it is different and more involved. Of course, with smaller runs they're also more expensive to buy -- most are in the $20 range.

Sudbury also has more local bands that have pressed their work to vinyl -- The Statues, Kate Maki, Nathan Lawr and the Minotaurs, and Browning's band, Ox, come to mind.

"Other cities of this size don't have this many bands that are touring and making records," Browning said.

Rob Seaton, frontman of The Statues, a Sudbury power-pop punk band, explained why its music is available on the big discs.

"Mostly, it was the labels we were working with. They're pretty much only vinyl labels," he said. "Any kind of underground music lends itself to the vinyl format. In the '90s everyone was pretty much doing CDs because it was cost effective. But there's been a huge shift and everyone's going back to vinyl."

At their shows, The Statues tend to sell more vinyl than CDs. Actually when the band was touring Europe, the ratio of records sold to CDs became even more skewed at about 5:1. The format fits the music, he said.

"It's a little more DYI to have your record pressed to ship it off to the CD manufacturer," Seaton said.

Browning's theory is the punk and metal lovers tend to appreciate the tactile, so have always been fond of the clunky discs. Records are also about friction which fits the sound.

"I prefer the sound of vinyl. It sounds better," said Seaton. "Audiophiles will debate that until they are blue in the face, of which I'm not one. I love the fact that they are huge and cumbersome and that they require work."

He's more inclined to put a record on and listen to the whole thing, while with a CD, there's the temptation to skip tracks.

"It's totally making a comeback," Seaton said.

[Sudbury Star]

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